How to Turn Lawns Into Flowers

pink gaura (Gaura lindheimeri 'Siskiyou Pink')

pink gaura (Gaura lindheimeri ‘Siskiyou Pink’)

If you have a lawn and are concerned about the water it guzzles, you may want to consider converting part or all of it into a perennial garden. This does not have to be a labor-intensive process – and no chemicals are needed to kill your lawn.
The W. Atlee Burpee Co., a mail-order purveyor of seeds and plants, has given the name “LawnBuster” to this lawn-to-perennial-garden conversion process. (You can get more details at www.burpee.com). The only materials required are newspaper and wood chips.
Start by spreading a half-inch thick layer of wet newspaper over your lawn. The reason for soaking the newspaper is that it spreads more easily when wet. On top of the newspaper you will deposit a 2- to 3-inch layer of composted wood chips. If you cannot locate such chips, I would think that nitrolyzed (nitrogen enriched) cedar chips, available at the nursery by the bag, would be an acceptable alternative. Even shredded wood, bark and leaves from the back of a tree trimmer’s dump truck would probably work as long as you sprinkled a nitrogen-based fertilizer over the trimmings.
The reason you cover the newspaper with wood chips instead of finer organic material (which would decompose more quickly), is that you want to completely block out the sun from reaching the lawn for one year. The nitrogen you add to your woody mulch will keep a nitrogen balance in the soil that will sustain the perennials that you eventually plant.
Within three to six months of initiating your newspaper and woody mulch treatment, you will be able to cut planting holes (for your perennials) in the softened lawn with ease, since the root system below will have begun to die and decompose. Put a dose of slow-release fertilizer into each planting hole and surround the plant with some of the adjacent woody mulch.
When considering which perennials to plant in your former lawn, you may want to take your cue from High Country Gardens (800-925-9387, www.highcountrygardens.com). This a mail-order nursery in New Mexico that brings out fascinating new varieties for dry Western climates each year. This year it has good reason to be enthusiastic about Coreopsis grandiflora “Mayfield Giant,” whose 3-inch-diameter orange-yellow daisies crown stems as tall as 4 feet. Another perennial to consider is Aquilegia “Swallowtail,” a lemon yellow columbine that has trumpet flowers bearing 4-inch tails and finely cut blue-green foliage. There is also Salvia nemerosa “May Night” with long-lasting deep violet blooms, Salvia “Raspberry Delight” with dark red flowers and scented foliage, a brilliant pink gaura (Gaura lindheimeri ‘Siskiyou Pink’, and Castilleja inegra, an unusual parasitic plant with orange foliage.
TIP OF THE WEEK: This is the time to plant forget-me-nots (Myosotis) from seed. Broadcast seeds, available in annual, biennial and perennial varieties, in partially shaded areas. The blue flowers of forget-me-not will blanket the ground from late winter through early summer and beyond.

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